Navigating shifting sands in Asia

G. Parthasarathy reflects on the strategic goals of India and its partners across the Indo-Pacific and beyond

Events marking the centenary of the conclusion of World War I witnessed a major change in independent India’s ambivalent approach to events pertaining to the20th century’s two World Wars. 62,000 Indian soldiers laid down their lives in World War I and 87,000 perished in World War II. Field Marshal Auchinleck acknowledged frankly that the British ‘couldn’t have come through both (world) wars if they hadn’t had the Indian army’.

In spite of this, successive governments in independent India paid little attention to remembering and honouring these sacrifices of its men in arms, evidently because they were fought under colonial rule. This, however, changed before the eyes of the world when India’s Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu, inaugurated the first Indian-built war memorial in northern France on November 11, while paying tribute to thousands of Indian soldiers who sacrificed their lives during World War I. Interestingly, this change was ushered in by Mr Narendra Modi, India’s first prime minister born after independence, when he visited Australia and paid tribute to the Indian and Australian solders who laid down their lives at Gallipoli.

Much has changed in both India and the UK since India attained independence. India chose to be ‘nonaligned’ during the days of the Cold War, though its domestic, economic and foreign policies were perceived, especially in the western world, as being ‘tilted’ in the Soviet direction. The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with India’s centralised economy almost collapsing, leading to a policy of economic liberalisation and a quest for great economic integration with the fast growing economies of East and Southeast Asia. The UK joined the European Union while remaining steadfastly supportive ofUSpolicies. With Brexit,it is now seeking to reverse its involvement in economic integration across Europe.

What remains the same, however, is that the UK and India are still united in their belief in democratic values, while cherishing cultural diversity and pluralism.But India is concerned at the growing protectionist and racial factors that now appear increasingly in the policies of Trump’s America and across many parts of Europe. One can only hope that the liberal thinking of France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel will prevail over the prejudiced perspectives now spreading across the Atlantic.

The UK and India are still united in their belief in democratic values

At the same time, there are bright prospects for an increasingly cooperative security and economic architecture gaining strength across India’s eastern shores. India is committed to working with and strengthening the efforts of ASEAN countries, for regional cooperation, across its eastern land and maritime borders. Trade and investment ties with ASEAN countries are booming and India now has free trade agreements with ASEAN, Japan and South Korea.  More importantly, negotiations are underway for a  ‘Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement’ (CEPA) for free trade and investment ties, linking India, ASEAN members, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China and South Korea in the largest ever RegionalFree Trade Grouping.It remains to be seen, however, if, given China’s assertive economic diplomacy, the CEPA can become a stable and viable forum for economic integration across the Indo-Pacific, extending across the Indian Ocean to the shores to the South China Sea and Pacific Ocean.

India is all too aware that China’s economic, military and diplomatic thrust across its land and maritime borders can only be balanced by acting in concert with others. Japan’s economic cooperation and involvement is crucial to achieve its objectives. India and Japan cooperate closely to ensure that resources are made available to regional powers to enable them to avoid becoming overly, or exclusively, dependent on China. The personal chemistry between Prime Ministers Modi and Abe enables both countries to offer economic alternatives for economic development projects on terms that are more attractive to recipients than what China offers. Sri Lanka was forced to lease out the strategic port of Hambantota to China, as it could not afford to repay credits extended by Beijing.There is a growing realisation in countries across the region – including even China’s ‘all weather friend’, Pakistan – that they could become virtual client states if they are unable to repay debts to the Asian giant. Regional countries ranging from Malaysia to Myanmar are now more circumspect in agreeing to China’s offers of ‘aid’.

Japan and India are also in close contact regarding their relations with China, including on measures to see that tensions with China do not veer out of control. Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping met one-to-one in Wuhan over two days in April, and it was announced that‘the two leaders decided they would issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures, which have already been agreed upon by the two sides’. This meeting has sought to ensure that both militaries take measures to avoid tensions arisingfrom face-offs across disputed borders, such as the prolonged military stand-off along the India-Bhutan-China border tri-junction last year.Likewise, Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China focused attention on avoiding actions that could escalate tensions across disputed maritime boundaries in the East China Sea.

Thus, while India and Japan have sought to end tensions vis-à-vis contested borders with China, both countries realise the need for continued vigilance along these borders. Amongst the new strategic challenges that India faces from China today is China’s propensity to back its chosen leaders and political parties in countries such as Bangladesh, The Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal, thus introducing a new dimension intothese countries’ electoral politics.

Having settled its maritime boundaries with all its eastern neighbours – includingSri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia –India has voiced support for its ASEAN partners in their efforts to resolve their maritime boundary disputes with China, in accordance with the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Maritime cooperation with littoral States of the Indian Ocean is being expanded, while issues of national security feature prominently in tripartite talks between India, the US and Japan. The three countries also hold regular tripartite naval exercises across the shores of the Indo-Pacific. India and the US now have formal agreements, which give both countries access to bases in designated places. Australia has recently joined this grouping for cooperation in specified areas.

The larger strategic aims of India and its partners across the Indo-Pacific are to enhance regional and bilateral economic cooperation, engage China extensively on bilateral issues and seek to reduce tensions on disputed borders by adopting a rule-based approach to maritime issues. They are bold but prudent ambitions.

G. Parthasarathy is a career Foreign Service Officer. He served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi 

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